Homily for Ash Wednesday Mass

14 Feb 2024

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 14 February 2024

‘Life-extensionists,’ ‘immortalists’ or ‘longevists’—their goal is to live for as long as they can. Using tissue rejuvenation, regenerative medicine, molecular and gene therapy, stem cells, organ replacement, and pharmaceuticals, they try to push the boundaries of the human life span. The American tech entrepreneur, Bryan Johnson, has gone to extreme lengths, including multimillion-dollar outlays on diet supplements, curated sleep, gym work and swapping plasma with his son.[1] While the current life expectancy of an American is 77, at least one human being has lived to 122,[2] and some aspire to more…

It sounds like sci-fi, but it’s an ancient impulse. Life is a good for any living thing, and humans have always sought to ward off danger, fix illness, and slow ageing or at least the appearances. Yet even if we have the most beautiful face, best six-pack, most youthful figure, these things are passing. Ash Wednesday says: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Fortunately, there’s more to us than the atoms of dust, the biological plumbing and electricals. More even that the brain power and ego that drive us to attempt things like life-extension to 150. At our genesis, God shaped us from clay like a potter, but then breathed life into our nostrils like a resuscitation nurse (Gen 2:7). The story underlines that we are material and spiritual beings, with souls that share in God’s own life. And as St Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[3]

: Were it not trumped by Ash Wednesday, today would be Valentine’s Day. For the secular world that means sentimentality and sales—of flowers, chocolates and jewelry rather than hot-cross buns! But this year’s coincidence with Ash Wednesday reminds us that Lent is also about love, , a love so big it spent itself on us. God’s rescue mission ends at Golgotha, when the greatest lover declares from the cross that His love is “consummated” and gives up His spirit as He did at creation (2Cor 5:20-6:2). To ready His Valentine humanity for that, He gives the gifts told in our Gospel (Mt 6:1-6,16-18), gifts far better than flowers, chocolates and jewels.

First, the gift of prayer. Every loving relationship is fed by communication and through prayer we open our hearts to God, lean on Him, confess, petition, listen. Prayer is the wellspring of our spiritual lives, where God replenishes and inspires hope.

His next gift is fasting. As spiritual as we are, we are also material beings, made of stardust, and so must learn to master our bodies and temper our desires. As spiritual and physical, God’s care is for our whole being.

Thirdly, almsgiving. This gift subverts our culture’s messages that what matters is always getting what I want. It affirms that we are relational beings, needing one another for our fulfilment. By reaching out to others, we imitate the God who went out of Himself to love us into being and then to redeem us.

Three Valentine’s gifts for God’s sweethearts, but wrapped in purple. For Lent promises us so much more than an extension of our earthly use-by date, a few extra years scratched out at huge expense or by a 40-year-long Lent of fasting from carbs, fats and everything else we like. We are offered 40 days of prayer, fasting and giving, not for earthly gain, but to ready ourselves for that day when, from that dust from which we are made and to which we return, Christ “will raise up in the flesh those who have died and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.” (Eucharistic Prayer III)

[1] Charlotte Alter, ‘The man who thinks he can live forever,” Time 20 September 2023 https://time.com/6315607/bryan-johnsons-quest-for-immortality/

[2] Craig Whitney, “Jeanne Calment, world’s elder, dies at 122,” New York Times 2 May 2019.

[3] Augustine, Confessions , I.I V